How to Stop Buying Lists & Start Building an Opt-In Email Database

Ellie Mirman
Ellie Mirman



email list buying

It's difficult, I know. If you've been buying lists since ... well, the dawn of Marketing. It's hard to imagine another way of doing things. Even as your lists get worse and worse (along with the results they drive), it just feels like that's the way things are. You just have to buy more lists, and negotiate better prices to make up for the decreasing returns.

But there actually is another way -- a more sustainable, lovable way -- to build an email list and generate leads for your sales team. Want to know what it is? I promise, it's well within your reach.

Wait, I need to stop buying lists?

Yes. While it's been the way marketers have been doing email marketing for a long time, the practice of emailing purchased lists is getting less effective and will likely be illegal before too long (it already is in Europe and Canada). You can read more about why buying lists is always a bad idea, but here's the gist:

  • Reputable email marketing service providers don't let you email purchased lists. For all the reasons listed in the subsequent bullet points.
  • There's no such thing as a good list for sale. No one ever volunteers to put their email address on a list available for purchase. So what you're getting is scraped, defunct, or bad email addresses.
  • People on purchased lists don't want to hear from you. The reason you had to purchase that list is because that person doesn't know who you are and has not opted in to your emails organically. But what that means is they don't want to hear from you.
  • You will hurt your email deliverability and IP reputation. Purchased lists -- because the quality is lower and the people don't want to hear from you -- have higher bounce, unsubscribe, and spam rates. Which hurts your email reputation and future deliverability.
  • You want to be a lovable marketer. A key task of marketing is to communicate and engage with prospective customers, and spamming them is not a lovable way of engaging with your audience.

All of this adds up to this: A house opt-in email list is more effective than emailing a purchased list.

Okay, okay, so how do I make the switch?

First off, you should know that building an opt-in list takes time and effort -- but it will bring you significant long-term gains with higher response rates and continued growth at a lower cost. What I propose in these 4 steps is to completely cut off all list purchases immediately, and focus on your long-term list building strategy while supplementing it with more legitimate paid marketing efforts to give you some short-term results, as well.

Step 1: Start blogging to attract website visitors.

The first thing you need is content, and a blog is a great way to create lots of short bits of content that can get indexed by search engines. Each blog article is another page that can indexed by search engines so that when your prospects go to search for an answer to their question, you have more opportunities to show up. Blog content in particular should be educational and valuable to your target market so that they have a reason to come read it and share it with their network. Make sure your blog has social sharing built in so that you can encourage others to share your content and extend your reach beyond a single target visitor or email subscriber.

It's simpler than you think to create that first blog article. Just ask yourself, what is the most common question you hear from a prospective customer? That's the title of your first blog article. The body of the article is simply the answer that you're used to giving on a daily basis. Pretty simple, right? Now repeat for all the other common questions you get -- after a while, you'll get more and more used to creating educational blog content. It's that initial hump that's the hardest to get over. Here are a few more strategies for creating business blogging content if you're concerned about ongoing blog content creation.

Step 2: Create an offer to convert visitors into leads.

Now that you've attracted visitors to your blog and your website, you need a way to convert them and let them opt into receiving your email communications. If you don't have any offers on your website where someone can give you their information in exchange for a free resource, I'd suggest starting with two offers: one top-of-the-funnel, educational piece of content (like an ebook on the top 10 challenges facing your target customer), and one middle-of-the-funnel offer to let someone request to speak with your sales team and get a demo/quote/consultation. By having these two offers, you can capture potential leads that are at different stages in the buying process.

Now that you have these two offers, promote them all over your blog and website. On any given page of your website, your visitor should know -- what should I do next? If they're reading a blog article and enjoy your content, the call-to-action at the end can offer them to download your ebook on top 10 challenges. If they're on your product page and are interested in learning more, they should have that clear opportunity to sign up for a demo with a sales executive.

Once you have your first two offers covered, it's time to create more offers tied to different challenges or topics of interest to your potential customers. One great way to figure out what to use as the topic of your next offer is to look at the content that's popular on your new blog, and create an offer around that (and then you can even repurpose some of your blog content!). Here are the complete steps to creating lovable marketing campaigns to help get you started.

Step 3: Supplement with paid marketing in the short term.

The above two steps will help you build a high quality, opt-in email list over time. But it won't necessarily get you the volume of leads you need immediately. So in order to supplement your lead generation efforts in the short term, there are a few paid marketing efforts that can tide you over.

  • Pay-Per-Click Advertising in Search Engines - Run ads that will show up beside search results in Google, Yahoo, etc. This is a great way to capture some percentage of the people who are going to search engines to find an answer to a question. You can therefore catch people at the time that they're doing their research and target based on keywords to show more relevant ads. Make sure your ads lead to a targeted landing page that aligns with the content in your ad to capture as many of those new opt-in leads as possible. New to PPC? Here's how to get started with your PPC campaign.
  • Social Media Advertising - Similar to search PPC, you can do social PPC where you run ads on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter to reach people when they head to social media during the day. After all, social networks reach 82% of the world's internet users, and those internet users spent 6.7 billion hours on social networking. And that was just in October, 2012. (See more similarly crazy stats here.)
  • Blog/Email Sponsorship - There are likely organizations, bloggers, or other companies that have a similar target market to yours and have already built up their own in-house list. Some of them will allow sponsorships of their emails or blog, and display or share your content in their emails or on their blog. This is a fantastic way to accelerate the growth of your own list because you're building on an existing relationship and you can target a very specific audience and encourage them to opt in to your list by downloading your content.

Step 4: Communicate the change.

It's one thing to write about this marketing shift; it's another to do it. And it's yet another to get the rest of your team and executives on board with it. If you anticipate this shift being confronted by resistance from the sales or management team, you may want to consider presenting a proposal that outlines an experiment where you will try this approach for 6 months and set target metrics to show if it's working. Here are some of the things you can include in such a presentation:

  • Current Program and results - Outline your current process of purchasing and emailing a list, including a typical campaign with number of emails purchased, response rate, number of leads generated, total cost, and cost per lead. This gives the team a baseline of what's going on today, and sets their eye on a metric that matters -- number of leads generated. If you can go further down the funnel to marketing qualified lead, opportunity, or customer, that's even better.
  • Why the Current Program Isn't Effective - Share points like Email marketing to third party lists was ranked the least effective strategy by marketers, and perhaps even ask the team the last time they responded to such a cold email.
  • Proposed Plan and Target Metrics - Set out the goal of number of leads generated and cost per lead, and outline the plan for how you're going to generate those leads using a new approach. You can even detail how many blog articles you'll publish per week and offers you'll create per quarter.

Such a presentation that's focused on results, backed up by data, and supplemented with a clear plan can help get buy-in from the team and give you some run-way to switch to this approach. Want a head start on that presentation? Here's a customizable starter PowerPoint presentation with the above points. Just fill in with your numbers, brand accordingly if you desire, and plan and present to your team!

Are you fully transitioned off of purchased or rented email lists? How did you get internal buy-in to make that transition?

Image credit: jenny downing

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